Word-of-mouth communication always has been an effective way for colleges and universities to recruit students.
Female physics majors, for example, laud the brilliance of their professors to other women to entice them to attend. Asian students talk to fellow Asians about the international atmosphere of their campuses. Black students tell other blacks about their school's welcoming spirit. Football players swear to their former teammates back home that the university's head coach is a great motivator.
Few people can make the case for a university better than happy students with firsthand knowledge. Now the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth College are asking current gay and lesbian students to help recruit other students like themselves.
In my estimation, as a former college professor who taught many gay students, this is an enlightened move by the two Ivies. It underscores their mission to offer world-class liberal arts coursework and to provide culturally and socially diverse environments.
The online publication, Inside Higher Ed, broke the story on Feb. 26. Since then, many other campuses have begun studying how they treat sexual orientation in recruiting. According to the publication, "Outreach to gay applicants is different in some key ways from outreach based on academic interests or race and ethnicity. Typically, applications ask about academic interests and race and ethnicity (although that question is optional), and no colleges are known to ask applicants about their sexual orientation."
Until now, the schools have found other ways to identify admitted applicants who are gay without asking them directly. At Penn, admissions officers glean information from student essays and from items on the application that ask students to identify the social, cultural and academic groups they belong to or are interested in joining.
Some gay and lesbian groups want to go further. They are starting a campaign to ask colleges to add the sexual orientation question as an option. Inside Higher Ed states that Campus Pride, a national group, intends to petition the Common Application to add a voluntary question. The Common Application is a not-for-profit organization that serves students and member institutions by providing an admissions application, online and in print, that students may submit to any of its nearly 400 member schools.
Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application, said he did not know what action the board would take. On a purely practical level, giving gay students a way to self-identify will be another tool for registrars and admissions officers to collect data for tracking the effectiveness of their outreach.
Many advocates of the sexual-orientation question, along with sympathetic university officials, are bracing for pushback from conservative lawmakers who will accuse them of "promoting" the so-called "gay agenda." For this reason, many universities, including those in Florida, have been reluctant to be the first to take up the cause.
Then there are gay and lesbian students who worry that not all registrars and admissions officers and their staffs are ready to add the "rainbow" to their campus colors. Some students fear that if they identify themselves as being gay on their applications, the information may be used against them.
But Jack Miner, chairman of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Caucus of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, told Inside Higher Ed that today's campuses are more accepting than they were just a decade ago. He did not believe that self-identifying as gay or lesbian alone would be perceived as a negative.
I believe that the addition of the sexual-orientation question is more evidence that attitudes toward gay students are evolving at U.S. colleges and universities. It is not an effort to give these students "special rights" or to "promote the gay agenda."
It institutionalizes the need to treat gay students as an integral and normal part of the student body.